Social Evolutionism

The ruins of the Greek Baths in Olympia
Aschwin Prein

Social evolution is what scholars term a broad set of theories that attempt to explain how and why modern cultures are different from those in the past. The questions that social evolution theorists seek answers to include: What is social progress? How is it measured? What social characteristics are preferable? and How were they selected for?

What Social Evolutionism Means

Social evolution has a wide variety of contradictory and conflicting interpretations among scholars--in fact, according to Perrin (1976), one of the architects of modern social evolution Herbert Spencer (1820 to 1903), had four working definitions that changed throughout his career. Through Perrin's lens, Spencerian social evolution studies a little of all of these:

  1. Social Progress: Society is moving towards an ideal, defined as one with amity, individual altruism, specialization based on achieved qualities, and voluntary cooperation among highly disciplined individuals.
  2. Social Requirements: Society has a set of functional requirements that shape itself: aspects of human nature such as reproduction and sustenance, external environment aspects such as climate and human life, and social existence aspects, the behavioral constructs that make it possible to live together.
  3. Increasing Division of Labor: As population disrupts previous "equilibriums", society evolves by intensifying the functioning of each special individual or class
  4. Origin of Social Species: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that is to say, the embryonic development of a society is echoed in its growth and change, albeit with outside forces able to alter the direction of those changes.

Where the Notion Comes From

In the mid-19th century, social evolution came under the influence of Charles Darwin's physical evolution theories expressed in Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, but social evolution is not derived from there. The 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan is often named as the person who first applied evolutionary principles to social phenomena. In retrospect (something that is tantalizingly easy to do in the 21st century), Morgan's notions that society moved inexorably through stages he termed as savagery, barbarism, and civilization seem backward and narrow.

But it wasn't Morgan who saw that first: social evolution as a definable and one-way process is deeply rooted in western philosophy. Bock (1955) listed several antecedents to the 19th-century social evolutionists to scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries (Auguste Comte, Condorcet, Cornelius de Pauw, Adam Ferguson, and lots of others). Then he suggested that all of those scholars were responding to "voyage literature", stories of the 15th and 16th century western explorers who brought back reports of newly discovered plants, animals, and societies. This literature, says Bock, sparked scholars first to marvel that "God created so many different societies", than to attempt to explain the various cultures as not as enlightened as themselves. In 1651, for example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes explicitly stated that Indigenous peoples in America were in the rarified state of nature that all societies were before they rose to civilized, political organizations.

Greeks and Romans

Even that is not the first glimmer of western social evolution: for that, you have to go back to Greece and Rome. Ancient scholars such as Polybius and Thucydides built histories of their own societies, by describing the early Roman and Greek cultures as barbaric versions of their own present. Aristotle's idea of social evolution was that society developed from a family-based organization, into village-based, and finally into the Greek state. Much of the modern concepts of social evolution are present in Greek and Roman literature: the origins of society and the importance of discovering them, the need to be able to determine what inner dynamic was at work, and explicit stages of development. There is also, among our Greek and Roman forebears, the tinge of teleology, that "our present" is the correct end and the only possible end of the social evolution process.

Therefore, all social evolutionists, modern and ancient, says Bock (writing in 1955), have a classical view of change as growth, that progress is natural, inevitable, gradual, and continuous. Despite their differences, social evolutionists write in terms of successive, finely-graded stages of development; all seek the seeds in the original; all exclude consideration of specific events as effective factors, and all derive from a reflection of existing social or cultural forms arranged in a series.

Gender and Race Issues

One glaring problem with social evolution as a study is the explicit (or hidden right in plain sight) prejudice against women and non-whites: the non-western societies seen by the voyagers were made up of people of color who often had female leaders and/or explicit social equality. Obviously, they were unevolved, said the white male wealthy scholars in 19th-century western civilization.

Nineteenth-century feminists like Antoinette Blackwell, Eliza Burt Gamble, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman read Darwin's Descent of Man and were excited at the possibility that by investigating social evolution, science might trump that prejudice. Gamble explicitly rejected Darwin's notions of perfectibility--that the current physical and social evolutionary norm was the ideal. She argued that humanity has embarked on a course of evolutionary degradation, including selfishness, egoism, competitiveness, and warlike tendencies, all of which flourished in "civilized" humans. If altruism, care for another, a sense of the social and the group good is important, the feminists said, the so-called savages (people of color and women) were more advanced, more civilized.

As evidence of this degradation, in the Descent of Man, Darwin suggests that men should choose their wives more carefully, like cattle, horse, and dog breeders. In the same book he noted that in the animal world, males develop plumage, calls, and displays to attract females. Gamble pointed out this inconsistency, as did Darwin, who said that human selection resembled animal selection except that the female takes the part of the human breeder. But says Gamble (as reported in Deutcher 2004), civilization has degraded so much that under the repressive economic and social state of things, women must work to attract the male to establish economic stability.

Social Evolution in the 21st Century

There is no doubt that social evolution continues to thrive as a study and will continue in the foreseeable future. But the growth in representation of nonwestern and female scholars (not to mention differently gendered individuals) into the academic realm promises to alter that study's questions to include "What went wrong that so many people have been disenfranchised?" "What would the perfect society look like" and, perhaps bordering on social engineering, "What can we do to get there?


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Social Evolutionism." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, October 2). Social Evolutionism. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Social Evolutionism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).